By Iran Review
By Farzad Ramezani Bonesh*
An agreement to conduct feasibility studies on a railroad project that would connect Iran to Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and China was signed by all involved sides in October 2010. According to this agreement, which was signed among five countries of China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Iran, a transit rail route will be constructed from China to Iran.
The route will be 2,100 kilometers long and a large part of it, that is, 1,148 km will cross Afghanistan. According to the agreement that has been signed among the five countries, each and every one of these countries are bound to conduct and finish technical and economic feasibility studies on this project by the middle of 2016, so that, practical work could start on this project. The need to implement the project was further emphasized in a recent meeting in Tehran between high-ranking officials from Iran and Afghanistan.
Political and economic interests of all members in building a new rail corridor
This railroad can not only boost transportation capacity of the involved countries, but also energize the growth of their national economies, expand their trade exchanges and promote tourism ties, while helping them develop their national economies. In addition, the railroad will reduce the distance for commercial transport between the East (from China to Iran) and the West (toward Western Europe) and help connect member countries to the free waters of the Persian Gulf through the Iranian soil. In addition, transit of cargo among regional countries will be facilitated and due to shortening of distance and time, the costs of shipping cargo along this route will decrease while transit role of involved countries will grow.
On the other hand, the railroad connecting Iran to Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and China can help promote bilateral and multilateral relations among member countries and, in addition, create more economic dynamism in countries that are members of the North-South Corridor, which is made up of 14 countries. Of course, the railroad connecting the city of Tejen in Turkmenistan to Iranian cities of Sarakhs, Mashhad, and Bafq, has already reduced the cost of rail access by the Central Asian countries to the Persian Gulf and India.
However, note must be taken that the new rail corridor between Iran and China, which will extend up to the city of Kashghar in China – by crossing Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – will decrease the distance over rail for the access of China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan to Iran, Europe and the Middle East. This is while this railroad is the missing link in the standard international railroad and the most important part of the eastern railroad, which has not been finished yet. So, if this project is realized, it would be of great help to boosting political and regional convergence. This is true as the expansion of any kind of cooperation among regional countries would help regulation of common interests among these countries and reduce the extent of the existing threat. On the other hand, when their interests are tied together, they would naturally pose less threat to one another, and will offer more help for the establishment of sustainable stability and security in the region.
Benefits for China
In line with a plan to revive the historical Silk Road, China launched 9,000 kilometers of new railroad in 2015. Of course, the Chinese have been working on another rail route which runs through China, Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, and the Republic of Azerbaijan to reach Georgia in Europe. However, the railroad running through China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan is also in line with their national interests because due to high volume of their economic exchanges, the Chinese need to take advantage of diverse routes to connect to trade markets and energy resources. Therefore, establishing rail and road connection from China’s western regions to West Asia, the Persian Gulf and Europe is of high importance to Beijing. The new railroad will further shorten the existing route that connects China to West Asian countries, and the Middle East in order to export and import goods and also to take oil products from the Persian Gulf region.
Benefits for Iran
Although the railroads of Iran and China have been already connected through the Central Asian countries – by crossing through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan –, on a national scale, the new rail corridor can first of all boost Iran’s economic exchanges with all other members. In later stages and on a regional scale and due to Iranian government’s plans to develop Makran region and the southeastern Chabahar port, Iran can have facilitated access to the regional transport hub.
In the meantime, the new railroad can be extremely effective in easing transit and help increase the volume of trade between Iran and other regional countries. From political and geopolitical viewpoints, in view of the advantages that Iran has in terms of transit security and for transit of major shipments through its soil, the policy of “everything without Iran” and efforts made to bypass Iran when implementing important economic and geopolitical projects will be rendered ineffective.
Benefits for Tajikistan
Establishment of a land transport corridor and construction of railroad through Afghanistan’s soil is much more important for Tajikistan. This railroad can connect Tajikistan directly to Afghanistan and indirectly to Iran, as two Persian-speaking countries, and reduce the country’s political reliance on Uzbekistan and Russia.
Benefits for Kyrgyzstan
During recent years, Kyrgyzstan has been mulling construction of rail routes to Kazakhstan, and China, and now to Afghanistan and Tajikistan in order to diversify its export routes. The new railroad practically circumvents Uzbekistan and reduces the leverage it currently has for putting pressure on its neighbors, also reducing Kyrgyzstan’s need to rely on Uzbekistan’s railroad.
Benefits for Afghanistan
Afghanistan lacked any form of railroad until 2011, while this country is in dire need of rail transportation. The new railroad will increase Afghanistan’s access to the Central Asian and European rail networks. Launching this railroad will lead to prosperity and development of central and northern provinces of Afghanistan, and since the new railroad crosses through northern parts of Afghanistan (where the Taliban group does not sway much control), the possibility of security challenges being posed by the Taliban group will also decrease.
On the other hand, construction of this rail corridor can provide an opportunity for the export of minerals from Afghanistan’s vast mines. Apart from all these issues, demand for transport by member countries through this corridor is sure to be very high and can help the country earn an annual amount of USD 200 million to USD 300 million in transit duties. This reason is enough to make afghan officials lend their full support to this project, noting that it will play an important role in helping growth of the country’s national economy.
*Farzad Ramezani Bonesh
Researcher and Expert on Regional Issues